Kiribati. Does not the name seem to come from the farthest corners of the world? It meets your eyes with what appear to be four canonic syllables (consonant-vowel), the sounds bouncing velum–tip–lips–tip. Surely it must be some exotic Polynesian word!

Well, actually, Kiribati is in Micronesia, not Polynesia, though the local language and culture do have some Polynesian and Melanesian influences. But it is at the far corners of the world: it straddles the equator and the international date line. Or, well, it used to straddle the date line; the line was redrawn around it so that all parts of Kiribati could be on the same business day, even if two time zones apart. But it remains the only country that is in all four hemispheres.

In fact, Kiribati spreads across nearly 4000 kilometres of ocean. Its exclusive zone covers more than 3 million square kilometres… of ocean. Its total land area is 811 square kilometres, composed of 33 islands. To give you a comparison, the city of Toronto covers 630 square kilometres. Which is slightly more than the 609 square kilometres that just one of Kiribati’s islands, Kiritimati, covers. Yes, more than three-quarters of this country is one island (the largest atoll in the Pacific), and it’s not the main island; Kiritimati is 3300 miles east of Tarawa, the most populated island and the centre of government and commerce. It’s actually part of a different group of islands – Kiribati is made up of three groups of islands that were bundled together sort of like cable channels.

There are all sorts of interesting facts that Kiribati may lead one to. For instance, since the date line was moved to accommodate the east end of Kiribati, Kiribati sees each new day and each new year first, while places north and south of it are among the last to see each new day and new year, because, even though the same sun dawns on them at the same time, it is thought of as different; it is written down differently. So January 1 comes to eastern Kiribati, and then, 24 hours later, it comes to Hawai‘i and Tahiti (north and south of Kiritimati), and finally 2 hours after that it comes to the last place to see it (Baker Island, a U.S. territory); of course, the day still has 24 hours to go once it starts there. So each day starts for some places after it is done for others, and from when it is first January 1 (or any other day) in Kiribati to when that day ends on Baker Island, that day has existed for 50 hours.

That is just because of a couple of cultural impositions, of course: time zones and the post-colonial assemblage called Kiribati, which gained independence in 1979. In 1971 the Gilbert and Ellice Islands gained self-rule; in 1975 they divided, the Ellice Islands becoming Tuvalu (another country) and the Gilbert Islands, along with Banaba (the one island that is not an atoll but a rocky island with some elevation), the Phoenix Islands, and the Line Islands, became Kiribati.

You will detect a trend towards using the local language. And, indeed, the local language – commonly referred to in English as Gilbertese – is not endangered; it thrives, and nearly everyone in the country speaks it first, in spite of English being the official language. In fact, not everyone really speaks English there. So you would expect that they would call the new country what they call their group of islands in their own language: Tungaru.

Which they did not, because the country includes those other islands that are actually different groups. They went instead with the old term Gilberts, but rendered in Gilbertese phonology: Kiribati.

Don’t be so surprised. All sorts of things on that side of the world have European-derived names. Polynesia, Micronesia, and Melanesia are all formed from Greek roots, meaning “many islands”, “small islands”, and “black islands”. All those hulas and mai tais and so on that you think of when you hear Polynesia? Now you can think of Greeks too.

So who was this Gilbert after whom the islands were named (by people other than those already there)? He was a captain of an East India Company ship. He and his fellow captain of a fellow ship, John Marshall, were on their way home from dumping convicts in Australia in 1788 when they happened on these islands and the ones subsequently called the Marshall Islands. To be fair, Gilbert didn’t name the islands after himself; they were named îles Gilbert (yes, in French) by an Estonian admiral of the Russian Czar, a man named von Krusenstern (yes, that’s a German name).

Meanwhile, of course, the folks on the islands were just going about their business. As they still are, though of course the modern world has its effects – notwithstanding which Kiribati is one of the world’s least developed countries. To give you some idea, Lonely Planet advises that “The ANZ/Bank of Kiribati, with three branches on Tarawa and one on Christmas Island, exchanges some foreign currencies and travellers cheques; rates are dire. There are ATMs in Bikenibeu, Bairiki and Betio on Tarawa but do not assume they will be working.”

But such things can keep life uncomplicated, ideally. Just as the Gilbertese language also seems uncomplicated. Gilbertese has just ten consonants and five vowels, with two lengths for each vowel. (By the way, if you would rather see it named in its own language, it’s te taetae ni Kiribati, “the language of Kiribati”. Nope, can’t escape Gilbert. Look, they’re not alone in having a European-influenced name for their language; the language of Indonesia is Bahasa Indonesia. I trust you noticed the nesia in Indonesia. Yes, it’s from Greek too. But Bahasa Indonesia is really a variety of Malay.)

But things are not always so simple as they seem. Perhaps you remember what allophones are. What is thought of in a language as one sound – a phoneme – may have multiple variations – allophones – that are distinct enough that they could be separate phonemes. In Latin, /t/ before /i/ became [ts], for instance, and from that it softened further in borrowed words so that our Latin-derived -tion endings sound like “shun.” In Japanese, /t/ before /i/ or /u/ becomes a sound that we think of as “ch”. So a name that in Japanese would be thought of as Kawaguti sounds like Kawaguchi to us and we spell it that way; meanwhile, if a person named Kawaguchi goes and skates for Russia (as has happened), the Russians transliterate the sound to their t, and the w meanwhile can only be represented as their v, and when that’s transliterated into English it becomes Kavaguti… of Kavaguti and Smirnov, the Russian pairs skating team.

But where I’m going with this is that in Gilbertese, /t/ before /i/ becomes [s]: it’s like what happened in Latin, only it’s softened even further. And if it’s at the end of a word, the /i/ is dropped. It is thought of (in the language) as the same, and is written the same, but it’s different. So Kiribati is pronounced “Kiribas” (stress on the first syllable).

You may or may not have noticed that I mentioned a Kiritimati above, and that Lonely Planet mentioned a Christmas Island. Guess what.

Has the penny dropped? Say the ti in Kiritimati as “s”… Yes, Christmas. That’s the one. It’s sometimes called by its English name, sometimes by the Gilbertese respelling. So it’s written differently but said almost the same. It’s just a matter of how you see it.

Is there any other influence the First World could have on this developing country? Well, yes. Aside from Banaba, all of Kiribati is made up of low-lying atolls that rise a mere few metres above the sea. And sea levels are rising. Yes, yes they are. A couple of small islets have already gone under the waves. The complete disappearance of Kiribati under the waves in the next century is a considered possibility. In fact, the government of Kiribati is looking into buying land in Fiji for resettling its population. But will they be able to remain a nation without their own land?

Or, as some scientists have suggested on the basis of studies, will at least some of the islands have a dynamic response to the increase in sea levels that will see them persist and possibly even increase?

At this point, do you really want to make a guess?

3 responses to “Kiribati

  1. I’ve met a few Fijian and I-Kiribati sailors before due to my work. They’d finished their contract and were flying on to Java and then back home and so far I think they’re probably from the most far-flung place I’ve met and had dealings with?

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  3. Pingback: attacca | Sesquiotica

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